The Last Unicorn (1982) is a strange, melancholic and deeply unsettling film. Despite its often-vivid colour palate, bold lines and frames busy with marvellous detail, it is at its heart a story of loss and disillusionment. Based on a 1968 novel by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn was produced by Rankin/Bass – a company more famous for simplistic festive morality tales like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – and animated by the Japanese studio Topcraft. A cursory overview of the film’s narrative suggests an archetypal fantasy quest – the last unicorn in existence sets out to find her vanished kin – yet, the film itself transcends the simplicity of its own mythic structure to become a profound meditation on sorrow and the evacuation of enchantment from the modern world. In this way, there is an unusual duplicity to The Last Unicorn: it appears at once a flight into fantasy and a lament for the waning of magic and wonder.
The film opens in profusion and plenitude, a garden of earthly delights where two huntsmen trespass on an enchanted forest. Commenting on the lush environs, one of the hunters observes that it is eternally spring within this sheltered grove because the forest is home to a unicorn, the last of her kind. As the hunters flee, disturbed to have impinged upon this magical space, one calls out to the unseen unicorn, telling her to stay in her enchanted forest, that it is “no world for you”. In his brief warning, the huntsman vocalises what is perhaps the central theme of the film: the fundamental irreconcilability of time and magic. In the fictive space of The Last Unicorn, wonder and the progression of time are inimical forces. Magic, in order to exist, needs to inhabit a static space, removed from the forward momentum of history. Concomitantly, progress and modernity are actively hostile to magic, trampling its wonders beneath their implacable rush towards the future. Yet, in this act of violation, the intrusion of the huntsmen into the silent sanctum of the forest, there is a sense that the modern has already begun to encroach upon the magical. Entering the forest, the huntsmen bring time, progress and decay into a space whose beauty is as ornate, yet as static, as a woven medieval tapestry. Their conversation about the last existent unicorn is overheard by the creature herself (Mia Farrrow), engendering an existential awareness in the mythical beast who finds herself increasingly weighed down by her loneliness, her singularity.
Knowledge and the intrusion of a demystified modernity is the inciting incident that sets in motion the unicorn’s quest. Leaving her forest to seek others of her kind, she abandons a green bucolic space alive with animal life, docile creatures whose placidity and wide-eyed sweetness would not be out of place in a Disney film. Perhaps her abandonment of these Disney creatures is symbolic, a metatextual acknowledgement of how the film will itself abandon the saccharine conventions of populist fairy tale adaptations and flee to the dark and dangerous shadows from which fairy tales, in their truest, earliest forms, first emerged. That The Last Unicorn is an elegy for the erosion of the mystical by the inexorable advance of time is evident from early in the film and is perhaps most grotesquely realised in the unicorn’s encounter with the shrivelled witch Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury). A diminutive hag whose wrinkled skin appears to merge with the rotten tree stump she wears atop her head, Mommy Fortuna is the owner of a shadowy carnival, where rickety caravans clatter through the moonlit countryside and pathetic caged exhibits are touted as captured mythical creatures. When the unicorn is herself ensnared by the old witch, we soon see that the legendary beasts who comprise Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival are little more than sad, decaying and decidedly ordinary animals: her Manticore is a desolate toothless old lion; her Satyr, an ageing chimpanzee; the awesome Midgard Serpent, a decrepit snake. There are few magical creatures in Mommy Fortuna’s sideshow: most of what appears mythic is simply an illusion, caged animals enchanted by the witch to fool onlookers into believing they are in the presence of the marvellous. Even when real monsters and marvels find their way into the carnival, they cannot be recognised as such by customers who have lost their faith in magic. When the unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna, the sorceress must cast a spell to create an illusory second horn on the unicorn’s brow. The men of today, we are told, cannot recognise a unicorn for what she is. They merely see a white mare, her distinctive horn invisible to most. In order to function as a profitable sideshow attraction, Mommy Fortuna most create the illusion of a unicorn’s horn, ersatz magic to disguise the real magic that modernity refuses to acknowledge.
In many ways, both the pathetic sideshow creatures of Mommy Fortuna’s carnival and the disappearance of the unicorns speak to a world gradually shedding its belief in the fantastic. Women weep with joy when they behold the caged unicorn with her illusory horn, but at the same time there is a sorrow in their tears, a realisation that magic has vanished from the world and wonder has abandoned the everyday; all that is left in its place is a mirage, a sideshow trick conjured up for profit. The Last Unicorn, although a fantasy film, is preoccupied with the notion of “disenchantment”. A concept introduced by the sociologist Max Weber, disenchantment refers to the manner in which contemporary, secular society abandoned its belief in the numinous, trading magic for rationality and mystery for the scientific. With the advent of the Enlightenment and Western capitalism, the inexplicable was viewed not as wondrous, but as a failure of reason and an affront to the progressive ideals of modernity. For Weber, not only was disenchantment a sign that our world had been “robbed of gods,” it was also an indication that the mysterious had been reconceived as a negative breakdown of rationalism and banished from Western society. The Last Unicorn is a film that laments this process of disenchantment, and the melancholy air that clings to the tale is born out of emptiness. It is a film that inhabits the vacuum left by the disappearance of wonder.
Although a fairy tale preoccupied with disenchantment, The Last Unicorn is also a film about desire, and most strikingly it is a film about the desire for meaning, for happiness and for respite from the ceaseless march of time. While the nameless unicorn is figured as the hero of the story, setting out on a valiant quest to find her lost kin, she is opposed by the villainous King Haggard (Christopher Lee), a skeletal tyrant who rules a wasteland from his crumbling castle perched at the edge of a jagged clifftop. Yet, while Haggard appears to comply with the archetypal image of the fairy-tale antagonist – old, bitter, tyrannical – his motivations are revealed to be astoundingly complex and ultimately tragic. King Haggard, we discover, is responsible for the disappearance of the unicorns. A perennially unhappy, deeply depressed old man, he has never known joy in his life, and any pleasure he has felt has been fleeting. Even the elation he felt upon bringing home his adopted son, Prince Lír (Jeff Bridges), was brief and ephemeral. He soon tired of the boy, who grew to manhood wandering the immense castle alone. The single moment of happiness that truly meant anything to old king was when he looked upon the image of a unicorn, and so, in order to preserve this happiness, Haggard tasked his diabolical emissary, the monstrous Red Bull, with rounding up all of the unicorns in existence and driving them into the sea. By doing so, Haggard had hoped to conserve the joy he felt upon first gazing at the unicorns, trapping them in the sea foam and watching them leap and surge with the undulating waves. For Haggard, happiness is an elusive sensation and, so, he uses his power and influence in a vain attempt to capture it and preserve the feeling of joy for his eternal consumption.
Haggard’s desire to maintain his grip on happiness is certainly evocative of the film’s ambivalent attitude to time and progress. Although the unicorn’s forest and its eternal spring is presented as a pastoral utopia, Haggard’s obsession with the preservation of happiness is depicted as destructive and selfish. In a similar manner, Mommy Fortuna’s villainy is also intimately connected to her own need to suspend time; in this case, a wish for immortality is the hag’s undoing. Early in the film, we see that amidst her tragic menagerie of illusions, there are two genuinely magical creatures: the unicorn, of course, but also a terrifying harpy named Celaeno. A grotesque, quasi-avian figure, the harpy sits patiently in her cage, her sagging breasts and gnarled claws a testament to her monstrosity. When the unicorn warns Mommy Fortuna of the perils of imprisoning a harpy, telling Mommy that her death sits in that cage, the witch expresses a disturbing awareness that the birdlike monster will someday kill her. However, she promises to keep the murderous creature because the ability to trap a harpy will be her legacy; it will make her immortal, and her reputation as a witch powerful enough to hold a harpy will secure her against the passage of time. Like Haggard, Mommy Fortuna seeks to grasp the ephemeral. While the old king seeks to conserve an elusive happiness, Mommy is destroyed by her desire for immortality and recognition; she willingly goes to her death, knowing that her fame will keep her memory alive.
Beyond Mommy Fortuna’s desperate bid for immortality, the film seems fundamentally preoccupied with the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Even while expounding on the happiness he derives from watching the unicorns in the sea beneath his castle, King Haggard remarks that the sight of the unicorns makes him feel young. Moreover, it is not simply the film’s villains who are consumed by a horror of death. When the unicorn is transmuted into a human woman by her friend Schmendrick (Alan Arkin playing a wizard whose name means fool in Yiddish), the horror she feels at the metamorphosis appears primarily grounded in the perishability of the human body. Upon discovering her languid limbs and pale skin, the unicorn is appalled and screams that Schmendrick has trapped her in ephemeral, decaying human flesh. Although the young wizard transformed the unicorn in an attempt to save her life, she chastises him, telling him that it would have been better if he had let her die in that moment. Unlike, the almost immortal unicorn who would never have known death or old age, the human body she acquires is fragile and mortal. In the first moments after her metamorphosis, the unicorn claims that she can already feel her beautiful, young body beginning to die, lamenting that “I can feel this body dying all around me!” Here, The Last Unicorn seems to acknowledge that death is a condition of life, the inevitable fate of all organic things. Although becoming human allows the unicorn to travel to Haggard’s castle in disguise, as the Lady Amalthea, in order to rescue her kin and to briefly embark upon an unconsummated love affair with the melancholic Prince Lír, she is, for much of the film, completely unable to accept mortality as the price of humanity. It is only once she understands that the limitations of mortality are what enable the intensity of human emotion that the unicorn begins to comprehend the necessity of death and the beauty of mortal existence.
Although existing in the pseudo-medieval eternity of fairy tales, time, death and ageing are the key concerns of The Last Unicorn. Villains are destroyed by their inability to accept the passage of time or the inevitability of loss and decay. Concomitantly, even the virtuous are marked by the ravages of age and shaped by the sorrow of loss. While many fables and fantasy tales depict witches and evil kings as corrupted by age, few imagine their heroes as susceptible to the inexorability of these forces. Here, however, we see a unicorn horrified by the possibility of her own ageing flesh, and even the heroic magician Schmendrick is consumed by regret as he laments that the passage of years has not allowed him to become the great wizard he had aspired to be. Furthermore, we also witness what is perhaps the film’s most profound meditation on ageing in the character of Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes). Molly is a middle-aged Maid Marion analogue whose love affair with the Robin Hood-like Captain Cully has petered out in a wave of disappointment and disillusionment. No longer young and beautiful, Molly regrets her romantic elopement with Cully, a decision that led not to glamour and adventure but to poverty, hunger and resentment. Upon encountering the unicorn, Molly’s response is not so much one of awe but of anger. Her response to the materialisation of this fantastic creature is neither incredulity nor wonder. Instead, she admonishes the unicorn for appearing to her now, when she is little more than a disenchanted, ageing woman. She pleads with the creature, asking why it did not appear to her when she was a young innocent maiden. Raised on stories of unicorns appearing to beautiful young virgins, Molly had waited for the unicorn, but it had never come to her. She ran away with the outlaw Cully, believing that he would be her fairy-tale prince, or at least her dashing Robin Hood. However, as the years passed her by, Molly grew older, cooking and cleaning for an ungrateful band of thieves, watching her youth and innocence drain away. Yet, as the film progresses, the story’s heroes learn to accept the reality of death and understand the beauty in the fleeting nature of mortality. Even the unicorn, once so horrified by her transmutation into a mortal woman, comes to appreciate that it is mortality that enables us to love and to feel.
The Last Unicorn is undeniably a fairy tale, yet it is a fairy tale that realises the essentially inimical relationship between fantasy and time. Both its villains and its heroes bear the marks of time and an awareness of their mortality. The horror that exists in this film does not stem from witches or dragons – though, the story features examples of both – rather it is ageing and death that function as a source of terror. Villains are rendered villainous by their inability to accept the inevitable progression of time, while heroes ultimately triumph through their ability to embrace their mortality, if only for a moment.